In The News

View the article on the Wall Street Journal's website, click here  

‘Eat Right’ Meltdown for Kraft Singles
Company, Public Health Group Hold Talks on ‘Kids Eat Right’ Logo

By TENNILLE TRACY
March 23, 2015 7:20 p.m. ET

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, one of the world’s largest groups of health professionals, is locked in talks with Kraft Foods Group Inc. to determine how to proceed with a controversial campaign to put the academy’s “Kids Eat Right” logo on packages of Kraft Singles.

“The academy is working toward changing any perceptions of endorsement,” academy spokesman Ryan O’Malley said. Talks between the parties have been going on for several days.

A partnership between the academy and Kraft, made public earlier this month, opened a rift within the academy, and some members have called on its leaders to disclose financial ties with Kraft. More broadly, it has prompted questions about the group’s credibility as a go-to source for nutritional guidance.

The controversy stepped into the limelight last week, when comedian Jon Stewart joked on the Daily Show that “the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is an academy in the same way this is cheese,” pointing to a package of Kraft Singles.

Described as a “pasteurized prepared cheese product,” Kraft Singles are made mostly with milk, cheddar cheese, whey, milk protein concentrate, milk fat and sodium citrate, an emulsifier, according to the ingredients.

The incident highlights the risk public health and nutrition groups take when they partner with food companies, often in relationships that involve donations and sponsorships, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and an author of several books on the food industry.

The academy “has become a laughingstock,” Ms. Nestle said. “Its viewpoints are so tainted, they’re so deeply influenced by their sponsors that it’s hard to take them seriously.”

With more than 75,000 members, mostly registered dietitians and other nutrition professionals, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics often plays a role in shaping national food policy. It lobbies Congress and weighs in on the development of regulations.

The partnership between the academy and Kraft put the food giant on track to become the first company to carry the academy’s “Kids Eat Right” logo on one of its products. Packages of Kraft Singles were also going to include a Web address for the campaign.

The goal, according to the academy, was to spread the word that children need more calcium and vitamin D in their diets. “We saw this opportunity to help parents bridge that dairy gap,” said Katie Brown, national education director for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Foundation, the academy’s philanthropic arm.

As part of the arrangement, Kraft agreed to provide money for a grant to be used at the academy’s discretion for scholarships, research or public education initiatives. Ms. Brown declined to disclose the sum provided by Kraft.

While the academy said it never intended for the partnership to serve as an endorsement of Kraft Singles, critics said consumers would assume the academy had given the product its seal of approval.

“The ‘Kids Eat Right’ logo appearing on any food product is an implied endorsement, despite the academy’s insistence that it is not an endorsement,” said Rachel Begun, a registered dietitian from Boulder, Colo., and member of the academy. “This announcement struck a nerve with members.”

Ms. Begun and other academy members have asked the academy to cut campaign ties with Kraft and to disclose the terms of the agreement. The New York state affiliate of the academy, with more than 5,000 members, sent a letter to the group’s leaders, saying it, too, was concerned about the partnership with Kraft.

Kraft spokeswoman Jody Moore said the company “has never used the word ‘endorsement’ to describe this collaboration. We have been clear Kraft Singles is a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right and this collaboration with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is to raise awareness of the importance of dairy, vitamin D and calcium in kids’ diets.”

According to its 2014 annual report, the academy counts several food and beverage companies among its corporate sponsors, including PepsiCo Inc.,General Mills Inc.,Kellogg Co. and Unilever PLC. Several additional companies served as sponsors of its conference in 2013, including Campbell Soup Co., ConAgra Foods Inc. and Del Monte Corp.

Each of the companies, excluding Campbell Soup and Del Monte, contributed $10,000 or more during the group’s 2014 fiscal year, which ended May 31, according to the annual report. Kraft wasn’t among the companies that donated that sum of money.

The academy’s website said corporate relationships allow it to develop and distribute messages to a broader audience. Acknowledging that it needs to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest, the academy states on the website that it “will authorize no commercial use of the name and logo that would diminish that value or damage that reputation.”

The academy isn’t the only public health group to come under fire for its relationship with food companies. The American Diabetes Association, which has also been criticized for accepting money from food companies, said it developed a set of guidelines that said food and beverage products that are identified as a “proud sponsor” of the ADA should be healthy and nutrient-dense.

Write to Tennille Tracy at tennille.tracy@wsj.com